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Feds may be reading your mail

PC World

April 26, 2000
Web posted at: 10:54 a.m. EDT (1454 GMT)

(IDG) -- Got an international e-mail pen pal or chat buddy? Belong to a mailing list that includes one person from outside the United States? Use a cell phone much? If you do, odds are good that Big Brother is watching you.

According to intelligence experts in the United States and Europe, a massive electronic intercept program called Project Echelon scans all Internet traffic, cell phone conversations, faxes, and long-distance telephone calls -- virtually every type of electronic communication -- looking for evidence of terrorist activity, military threats, and transnational crime.

The e-spying is being conducted by the secretive U.S. National Security Agency and its counterparts in Australia, Canada, New Zealand, and the United Kingdom.

"They are looking for thugs and drugs," says John Pike, expert on security and intelligence issues for the Federation of American Scientists in Washington, D.C.

That pursuit may be worthwhile in theory -- but most of what the spooks are scanning comes from you and me, not from terrorists, criminals, or other menaces to society.

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Echelon uses a filtering process to flag messages with keywords such as bomb, gun, and militia. But because little is known about Echelon, it remains unclear whether the system can differentiate between messages sent by criminals and those sent by law-abiding citizens. For example, a person in Chicago might innocently use two or more of the keywords in an e-mail to a friend in Japan while describing a Tom Clancy novel, or while discussing the latest NYPD Blue episode or even a news report about a recent terrorist act. What happens when Echelon picks up such a message? No one knows.

If you're a typical user, your chances of coming to the attention of a live person at the NSA -- much less of being placed under more thorough surveillance as part of an investigation -- are tiny. But nevertheless, the NSA has cast a very wide net to catch just a few suspicious goldfish. And the agency is invading your privacy to do it.

Project Echelon's equipment can process 1 million message inputs every 30 minutes, according to a series of reports commissioned by the Scientific and Technological Options Assessment program, a research wing of the European Parliament.

The STOA studies found that the system filters intercepted material so minutely that only 10 inputs out of 1 million are passed along for detailed analysis -- which is likely a second level of software filtering; even fewer messages reach live analysts.

The system also reportedly uses voiceprint technology to search telephone communications for targeted speakers.

Echelon uses powerful search engines -- called dictionaries -- to ferret out keywords of interest to intelligence analysts. Only a handful of these keywords from the classified dictionaries have made their way into published reports about the program.

Who watches the watchers?

The possibility that innocent people may become Echelon targets or that the project's spying may exceed legal boundaries bothers privacy activists. They note that when an intelligence project operates in total secrecy, the public has no way of knowing whether or not the program is operating within the law.

"Anytime you have a law enforcement or intelligence agency that claims it is policing itself, I have a real problem with it," says Wayne Madsen, a specialist on U.S. intelligence operations for the Electronic Privacy Information Center.

"I would feel a lot more comfortable if there was an outside ombudsman who was independent who could go in and take a look," he adds.

Echelon is so hush-hush that the NSA will not even acknowledge the program's existence, much less discuss its targeting criteria or its civil liberties safeguards. Only two fragmentary documents have been released under the federal Freedom of Information Act; they consist of just seven highly censored pages. The STOA reports are more detailed but still leave many questions unanswered.

Partly because of STOA's reports, the American Civil Liberties Union petitioned the House Committee on Government Reform last year and asked for an investigation of Project Echelon. The ACLU wants to ensure that Echelon is operating in accordance with federal law and the U.S. Constitution.

"Echelon is a black box, and nobody outside the intelligence community knows what is inside it," says ACLU national director Barry Steinhardt.

For those concerned about potential abuses, the issue is simple: "What it comes down to is, somebody is reading your mail," says Pike, who serves as director of the Federation of American Scientists' Intelligence Project.

"If it is an international transaction, the National Security Agency is monitoring it," Pike adds. "The target is wide open: Essentially, it consists of anything that would be of interest to the U.S. government -- and the rest of the English-speaking world." And no one is watching to see what they do with the information.

Here's looking at you, kid

News of Echelon comes at a time when privacy concerns loom for us all. Consumer organizations and electronic privacy groups were up in arms after Internet advertising firm DoubleClick purchased a direct marketer last year and announced plans to merge data gathered about consumers into a megadatabase. The information would include consumers' real names and addresses, as well as their Web surfing habits and facts about their purchases.

The uproar, along with several pending lawsuits, recently led DoubleClick to put its plan on hold. Meanwhile, the ACLU, the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association, the Electronic Privacy Information Center, and others have filed briefs in federal court challenging a Federal Communications Commission order that would force the telecom industry to support extensive police surveillance capabilities in connection with a 1994 law. A hearing on the matter is scheduled for May.

We know that our employers can monitor our e-mail. And no one condones terrorism or crime (except terrorists and criminals). But aren't we still entitled to some level of privacy? Echelon leaves us with few alternatives. Pike says encrypting e-mail may offer some protection -- as long as you aren't under suspicion in the first place.

Services such as Anonymizer and Zero Knowledge can provide you with an e-mail name no one can trace to you -- a tactic that may lend you some cover. But such a solution is not practical for businesses, and it certainly does not offer a viable long-term option.

For now, watch what you say, and where you send it.

What "they" are watching

Looking for keywords such as militia, gun, bomb, Delta Force, and explosive, Project Echelon intercepts the following types of communications:

  • Internet traffic, including e-mail and chat-room gab
  • Most long-distance telephone conversations
  • Any electronic signals transmitted by communications satellites
  • Pager signals
  • Fax transmissions

High-tech spy satellites not targeting Americans, CIA, NSA directors say
April 12, 2000
European Parliament delays decision on Echelon
March 31, 2000
Spy agency tells Congress it is breaking no law
Febuary 29, 2000
Is the U.S. stealing trade secrets from the EU?
March 27, 2000
Echelon: The skies have ears
December 30, 1999

Protect your e-mail from prying eyes
(PC World Online)
Who's watching you on the Web?
(PC World Online)
Privacy policies bark, but they don't bite
(PC World Online)
Spam fears may be hurting e-commerce
Is wireless surfing safe?
(PC World Online)
More cops on the Net beat?
(The Industry Standard) offers secrecy on-site
(PC World Online)
When your customers hate what you know

National Security Agency (NSA)
ACLU "Echelon Watch" site

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